Across the pond, stock car racing is immensely popular due to the draw of NASCAR and the massive fan-base the coverage of their events have amassed over the years. And just like many other major sports, NASCAR want to bring the fans into their world, sharing the joys of the events with a regular video game outing. Recent times suggest that games bearing this brand haven’t been all that great, but those behind the latest game, NASCAR Heat 2, want to improve on that and deliver a title which has a little more substance to it.
Unfortunately, I do not share a passion for stock car racing and my NASCAR knowledge comes from Ricky Bobby’s escapades in Talladega Nights. That doesn’t mean I’m not willing to give this new game a chance, because who knows, I may just find it’s one of the best racers on the market.
It really isn’t though, despite all the improvements.
NASCAR Heat 2 has brought together all three top tiers of the sport for use within the game, so the majority of the official teams and drivers participating in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series are present. That’s great for those who want to race in their favourite driver’s vehicle, whether you’re a fan of Kyle Busch, Danica Patrick, or even John Nemechek, then you’re covered. But the main reason the extra tiers are in the game is to bolster the Career mode.
The Career mode takes your custom created character from being a nobody to becoming a trophy winning somebody. All the customisation options are very basic, for both moulding your guy (or woman) and deciding upon the decals for your vehicles, but at least it’ll have a hint of your style. With no team to drive for initially, Hot Seat races work as trials to see how good you are and these pop up sporadically throughout the inaugural season. A goal is set for these one-off races and money is earned for succeeding; ignore the money though, it’s literally a pointless currency with no use. These will get you noticed and set you up for a contract offer or two, which brings me to my first issue – receiving a contract from the Brad Keselowski Racing team.
What’s the problem? Well, I had a torrid time hitting the targets required of me, yet still ended up with a fair amount of contract offers, with one in particular from a five star team. The stars denote the speed of a team’s vehicles and that’s the only way to differentiate between how they perform on the track. Anyway, being able to sign for a top team within the series seemed cheap, given the fact I had been largely rubbish up to that point.
Nevertheless, I snapped up the contract to race in the Camping World Truck Series, featuring pick-up trucks instead of stock cars, and ploughed on through my first full season. Depending on the way you want to embrace the sport, the option is available to compete in full length races with an hour’s worth of real-time practice and qualifying sessions to boot. The new implemented stages feature as well as the season playoffs, ensuring the setup is as similar to the real life format as possible. For those without a lot of time to spare, races can be limited to a very small percentage of the laps, meaning each track can be done in less than ten minutes.
Whilst competing in the third tier, Hot Seat opportunities arise for the Xfinity Series and it’s really distracting mid-season to be driving around in stock cars in-between truck races. There should be a choice to be able to turn these down, instead of making them a necessity. Aside from the races, there’s not a lot of substance to the off-track Career goings on; the vehicles can’t be tweaked, the contract incentives are worthless and the short video messages from other drivers are very generic.
As long as you are happy to just go through race after race, then the inclusion of the three aforementioned series’ will ensure this mode has longevity. I felt it dragged on a bit, and even with a low amount of laps it grew tiring because once you’re ahead that’s usually the way it stays, or you get battered around in the middle of the pack and spin out to end your chances. A wise man once said ‘if you ain’t first, you’re last’ and even though it’s a poor use of the English language, it’s exactly how it feels at the culmination of a race in this game. It doesn’t help that the tracks feel very samey throughout a season, adding to the tedium – but I’ll come back to those.
Challenges mode is the next port of call for budding drivers, and this is where scenarios are played out on each of the tracks included – 29 in total – with an objective set for you based upon a real life event in NASCAR history. They aren’t particularly difficult, with holding off the pack or reclaiming the lead near the end of a race, but the reward for doing so is a neat video package that gives you tips on mastering a track from one of the professional drivers. Challenges are ideal for a quick blast here and there, especially to get a taste of different tracks in NASCAR Heat 2.
The nature of the sport does the game no favours in terms of its track list, despite thinking 29 is a pretty good amount. There’s the oval-shaped Dover Speedway, the elongated oval track of Martinsville, and the sort of oval-shaped Richmond layout. If you haven’t caught on to my point, most of the tracks are very very similar, and this brings about the boredom swiftly. A couple of road tracks like Road America are present, but generally it’ll be a short, oval track to drive round and round and round.
The more technical the track is though, the more it brings out the flaws in the gameplay. Racing on the Speedway tracks, in either truck or car, is convincing enough as an arcade racer with acceptable handling and performance. Having to navigate the proper corners of Road America uncovers just how bad the vehicles turn and that the brakes stop the vehicle dead within milliseconds of applying them. They are way too harsh and it kills all momentum, with the alternative being to feather the throttle and the brakes before flying into the rubble. There’s no in-between. Needless to say, it’s not the most enjoyable experience.
Anyway, other than Challenges and Career, there’s a Championship mode which allows you to go straight into a full season of either the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup (or just the playoffs), Xfinity, or Camping World Truck, as part of the team of your choice. Basically it’s the Career without the auditions, longevity and the monetary incentives. Then it’s left to Quick Race – which is pretty self explanatory – and the local Split-Screen offering for two players. These can be useful to have a bash at your favourite tracks with no consequences and any settings you wish to try.
Multiplayer is where the best of the best will want to test their skills against each other and I’m impressed at the capability to have 40 human racers in one lobby. I’ve not found that many in one so far, but the one time I came close to this it led to a very chaotic battle of pushing, bashing and shoving. There wasn’t any natural lag though, if anything it was the frame rate that suffered; dropping every so often just like it does in the solo part of the game. The options for hosting an online lobby should cater to everyone’s needs, however the pure aggression found in each and every match is off-putting. Damage appears to be switched off entirely, so there are no real repercussions for their actions that affect their own vehicle, which doesn’t help.
All that’s left to discuss are the visuals, and I’m truly disappointed in the standards in NASCAR Heat 2. Does it look better than its predecessor? Yes, but I could still describe the graphical prowess as being on par with a mid-range Xbox 360 title from eight years back. The jagged edges of the track environments and the inside of the vehicles are basic looking, whilst the overall textures are lacking in definition. That’s before I mention the horrible view through the mirror in the cockpit camera, which is the only way to see behind you.
NASCAR Heat 2 deserves credit for enhancing and improving on the previous game in the series and the Career mode does bring potential longevity for fans of the genre, even though the currency for doing well is worthless and the seasons drag on when you’re being thrown into other series’ all the time. Having no way to influence the performance of the vehicles, and the only differential from each other being a simple star rating, it detracts from the freshness of the experience. The scenarios of the Challenges mode are interesting and provide an outsider with little history lessons, despite being fairly straightforward. Sadly, the visuals aren’t kind on the eyes, the gameplay gets boring rather fast and the vehicles are poor to handle on any of the exciting tracks. Multiplayer is a battleground instead of an arena to show off how well you drive, but there needs to be more in place to prevent it.
Given the price, the tedious gameplay and the way it hurts my eyes, I can’t in good faith recommend NASCAR Heat 2, unless you enjoyed the previous instalment. In which case, this is better. But that’s not saying much.